Be Innovative Without Fear

Joe Weinlick
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Fear is the enemy of workplace innovation. Workers and businesses often suffer from fear of failure, of financial loss or public embarrassment, just to name a few. There's no escaping the inherent risk of exploring new territory, but with the right strategies, your company can create a climate that increases fearlessness, mitigates potential losses and helps employees move past their natural tendency for professional self-preservation.

Embrace Healthy Communication

Workplace innovation depends heavily on honest, and often painful, communication. Low-level workers, who experience operational processes firsthand each day, are uniquely positioned to spot problems and suggest improvements. If they're afraid to speak up, your company loses the benefit of their knowledge and experience. Enable employees to present ideas without fear by removing roadblocks. Train managers at all levels to encourage feedback, brainstorming sessions and regular procedural evaluations. Keep in mind that job loss is a significant source of fear; employees may stay quiet rather than risk upsetting a loose-cannon manager, and managers might withhold innovative suggestions for fear of appearing less competent. To build the trust that's crucial to workplace innovation, you must prove to staff members that critical feedback does not lead to firing.

Build in Flexibility

A company that never deviates from established procedures cannot succeed at workplace innovation. Experimentation is essential to new developments, but it requires flexibility from managers and the company as a whole. Are your employees penalized for straying from policy or procedures? Are your managers evaluated based on their team's ability to meet specific targets? If so, workers may be too fearful to experiment. The exact process of building a more flexible environment varies by company. You might set aside a specific block or percentage of time for employees to try new things without fear of reprimand. Alternatively, you could reduce targets to enable more organic experimentation. Most importantly, you must view unsuccessful attempts as educational opportunities rather than professional failures.

Encourage Debate

A workplace innovation is rarely without its detractors. More experienced workers may be entrenched in the way things have always been done, while others focus on why a new approach can't possibly work. Don't stifle this healthy workplace conflict; encourage it. Hashing out the pros and cons of a new development helps workers anticipate problems and refine an idea to its best and most viable form. Bear in mind this process can provoke a fear response, particularly in employees who are uncomfortable with confrontation. Avoid shutting down ideas by requiring employees to stay respectful and to give each idea consideration. Be wary of power dynamics and ensure that older or senior-level employees do not intimidate newer workers. If necessary, appoint an objective person to act as a mediator to help each side balance realism and possibility.

Effective workplace innovation can keep your business competitive, even in a tough market. By taking intentional steps to create a supportive, safe climate, you can reduce fear and foster lucrative new developments.

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